For President Richard Nixon’s national security advisors, the genocidal slaughter of more than 100,000 ethnic Hutus by Burundi’s ethnic Tutsi government in the early 1970s was a matter of little strategic concern to the United States.
There is no evidence, according to a September 1972 White House memo to Nixon, that either of America’s great-power rivals, China or the Soviet Union, had played any role in the violence or sought to profit politically from it. The Burundian government meanwhile promised to guarantee the safety of some 150 Americans, mostly missionaries, in the country. “Our own interests in Burundi are microscopic (we buy some coffee),” according to the memo, which was attributed to Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, but bore the signature of his deputy, Alexander Haig.
The violence occurred more than 20 years before the 1994 Rwandan genocide, where extremists aligned with the Hutu-dominated army killed more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis, Twas, and moderate Hutus. In Burundi, it was the majority Hutu who endured the greatest loss of life at the hands of the minority Tutsi-dominated government.
The killing began on April 29, 1972, when Hutu insurgents staged a revolt against the government, attacking Tutsis and seeking to seize the military garrison on the outskirts of Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura. The revolt failed, precipitating the mass slaughter of Hutus.
“The Hutu rebels killed every Tutsi that they ran across during their initial rampage which triggered the Tutsi decision to exterminate all Hutus with any semblance of leadership, i.e., those who could read or write, or those who wore shoes,” according to the Kissinger memo.
The U.S. response, according to the memo, was limited to urging African states to take up the matter with the Organization of African Unity and pressing the United Nations to set up a humanitarian presence in Burundi. For its part, the U.S. policy consisted of offering humanitarian aid on the condition that it be distributed to Burundians on both sides of the ethnic divide and assisting refugees who had fled the country.
Kissinger’s memo reflected the view of the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, which argued that the U.S. response should be largely limited to humanitarian aid and diplomatic outreach to African states, which had little interest in intervening.
Nixon reacted angrily to Kissinger’s memo, scrawling a response in its margins that denounced the U.S. bureaucracy’s tepid response while revealing some of his own obsession with the ability of Catholics, Jews, and progressives in the U.S. government to grab the public’s attention.
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